by Becky Ross
The original idea of comparing the historical collections in Austin and Houston brought to mind the major differences between the two cities: their size, sense of community, political climate, money and status. Surprisingly, however, after visiting the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center and the Austin History Center in Austin and the Harris County Heritage Society and the Houston Metropolitan Research Center in Houston, I found the greatest differences dependent on the type of collection and its purpose, rather than the city that contains it.
The Austin History Center (AHC) and the Houston Metropolitan Research Center (HMRC) are both funded by public libraries; the centers have a homey feel, and their staff members are very conscious of their duty to the full variety of people who form the general public. The Harris County Heritage Society is similar to the AHC and the HMRC, but due to its lesser funding it has an even cozier viewing space.
The Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, while also encouraging public use. contains more exotic items that set it apart as a center intended for more traditional academic research. There are, however, similarities between the four collections. All contain both 19th and 20th century works, both photographs and negatives, and black and white and color works. All the images are archivally stored, with nitrate negatives kepi separately in cooler rooms to lessen fire hazards. Each center has provisions for the sale of copy prints, though prices and methods vary. Best of all, each of
these breathtaking collections is free and open to the public.
In the world of historical collections, the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center (HRHRC) stands out as the best in the Southwest, and one of the best in the world. It is a massive collection of photographs, camera equipment, manuscripts, books, theater, and motion picture arts. The HRHRC is part of the University of Texas, and its academic setting is reflected in its goals of meeting faculty teaching needs, supplying research material for the general field of the humanities, and allowing viewers to become acquainted with the fine arts.
Besides being a place for researchers and scholars, the HRHRC is a wonderful assemblage of art and history for all people. The Photography Collection is open Monday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p,m., with appointments requested, but not required.
Upon entering the Photography Collection of the HRHRC, the viewer is shown a short slide presentation on the handling of original materials, and then is free to consult the catalog or staff in order to select the desired items for viewing. An excellent multiple access system lists each image by artist, subject, and date of origin. The system is in the process of being automated, and when automation is complete, there will be approximately 20 access points, including listings of the process used in creating the image and the region in which it was produced. The amazing breadth and size of the Photography Collection allows thorough study of both photographers and the period in which they worked. One can sec original prints and then supplement those visual images with books or manuscripts that the photographer may have written, camera equipment of the same type that he may have used, as well as any motion pictures that the photographer may have produced or been influenced by. This experience of surrounding oneself with the elements of a specific era can strongly affect one's understanding of a photographer's work.
The Gernshcim Photography Collection, gathered by two great 20th century photo-historians. Helmut and Alison Gcrnsheim, forms the core of the Photography Collection. Included in the Gernsheim Collection are 19th and 20th century works by noted photographers, a library of books and journals, ranging from the antecedents of photography to the present, numerous examples of the earliest photographic experiments, and several hundred pieces of camera equipment. Some of the best known photographers represented in this collection are Julia Margaret Cameron. Lewis Carroll. D O. Hill and Robert Adamson, and William Henry Fox Talbot. Recent acquisitions of the Photography Collection include works by well-known 20th century photographers, such as Frederick Sommer, Paul Strand. Harry Callahan, and Lewis Hine, as well as images by such 19th century photographers as Leonard Misonne, H.H. Bennett, and George Fiske.
During my visit to the collection, I proposed a research question to Roy Flukinger, Curator of the Photography Collection. I have been interested in combining words with photographs for years, and I had previously used the Photography Collection to consult issues of Alfred Stieglitz’s Camera Works. Wanting to see a broader range of work, I asked Mr. Flukinger for other more loose and esoteric examples. Within fifteen minutes I was brought a cart full of beautiful works including 19th century handpainted photo albums, a heavily decorated 19th century book of poetry with original tipped-in photographs, and a recent 20th century handmade book of poetry with original archival photographs. Three months later, the memory of these exquisite works is still vivid. Visiting the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center is an intensely uplifting experience, and one that I highly recommend.
The Harris County Heritage Society in downtown Houston is the smallest of the four photography collections I visited. It houses the work from a local photography studio, a few family albums and some purchased pieces. The Harris County Heritage Society (HCHS) is also the most needy of the four in terms of funding and staff. It is a non-profit organization, which receives nearly all of its funds from membership dues and public and corporate donations Through its efforts to document Houston and Harris County history, it has become a storehouse of photographs, negatives, camera equipment, antique toys, antique fire equipment, textiles, and decorative art. Although most of the items were donated by Houstonians, some of the images included range far beyond Houston. The major emphasis, however, is Houston, and the photography collection of the HCHS could be envisioned as a gigantic Houston scrapbook. with early photographs of Main Street, grocery store interiors, theaters, company picnics, and more. Most of the photographs, negatives, and camera equipment are from a commercial photography studio run by the Litterst and Dixon families. The Liuerst-Dixon Collection dates back to 1920. but the HCHS also has photographs dating back to 1853. Most of the photographs made prior to 1914 are amateur snapshots, studio portraits, street scenes, office interiors and exteriors, and company picntes.
Access to about a third of the photographs is possible by business or family name, subject, and year with a descriptive worksheet for each image. This type of extensive cataloging is both difficult and time consuming, and because of the limited funding, it is a very slow process. The photography staff at the HCHS consists of only one person. Dannchl Twomey, Registrar and Photography Curator, who is also the curator of the Textile Collection. Ms. TAvomey is responsible for checking exhibition materials in and out, cataloging new acquisitions, setting appointments for people to view the photography collection, and assisting those people during their visits. Several Houstonians have helped Ms. Twomcy in identifying the 8.000 currently uncataloged Litterst-Dixon images. HCHS pcr-enially needs volunteer caialogers. and. while not everyone is suited for this kind of work, it can be fun and fulfilling, especially for people who have lived through many of Houston's changes. Archival copies of the photo- graphs are available for $9 per 8x10 or smaller print, if there is a copy negative already in existence. If there is no copy negative, one is made for the HCHS for an additional cost to the customer of SID Another option for those wishing to purchase a photograph of pre-video-game Houston can be found in the HCHS gift shop, the Yesteryear Shop. It offers a permanent stock of six different turnout he-century downtown scenes which are copies of photographs in the collection. These 8x10 prints are available for $15 each.
Whether or not you choose to lake copy prints home, there are some true jewels among ihe Lil-terst-Dixon Collection that Houstonians. especially, should not miss. As a native Houstonian. 1 look great pleasure in viewing Ihe grocery store and home interiors, YMCA team pictures, and panoramic images of church groups. It was as if I were able to go back in time and stand in the midst of these events. Though the experience is very different than that at Ihe HRHRC. its closeness to home is both intriguing and fun. The HCHS does require appointments, and it is open Mondays through Fridays from 8:30am to 4:30pm.
Like the Harris County Heritage Society, the Austin History Center exists to provide Travis County residents with the means to discover their own historical roots. The Austin History Center contains maps, original plans for Austin, photographs of early Austin and Travis County, and newspaper articles which document the evolution of the Austin and Travis County of today. Unlike the HRHRC and the HCHS, the AHC is a part of the local public library and therefore is funded by the city.
Most of the photographs in the collection are from Austin newspapers and studio photographers. Major collections include the Chalberg Collection, which consists of about 11,000 images from 1870 to 1960, and the Neal Douglass Collection, which consists of about 20,000 photographs and 40,000 negatives from the 1940s to the 1960s. The Douglass Collection is comprised of Neal Douglass's studio and commercial work, including images from his work as a staff photographer for the Austin American-Statesman and photographer for the Texas State Legislature.
For those who are interested in 19th century photography, the Austin History Center has work from Hamilton B. Hillyer, William J. Oliphant, and Samuel B. Hill, all of whom were Austin photographers. A special item in the Hill Collection is a two-volume set of Views of Texas, printed circa 1900 and illustrated with original tipped-in photographs.
Most of the photographs are kept in vertical files by subject. If the photograph is a portrait, it is filed under the subject's name: if the subject is a building, then it is filed by street address. The images are also cross-referenced under various subjects and by date.
Because the Center is part of a public library, the staff is very concerned with its duty to the public. This concern is evident in the assistance given to the public and in the policy of not charging a user fee for the publication of prints in the collection. Appointments are not required, and the Austin History Center is open Mondays through Thursdays from 9am to 8:45pm, Fridays and Saturdays from 9am to 5:45pm, and Sundays from 12 noon to 5:45pm. A copy stand is available, so if you bring your own camera, you may make copy negatives from your favorite photographs in the collection. You can then cut costs by making your own custom prints.
Like the HCHS, the Austin History Center collection has a strong local emphasis, but because Austin is the state capital, the city and its historic events are of interest to Texans beyond the Austin city limits. Sharmyn Lumsden, Curator of the Austin History Center, was very helpful in making some of these events known to me through photographs like those of "Laying brick on Congress Avenue" and "House going over dam."
Not all of the photographs in the collection, however, depict early Austin. Seeing the contemporary photograph as "very much an essential component in the historical photography collection,” the AHC created a juried photography exhibit, Austin Seen, displayed at the Center from April to June this year. The call for entries was sent out inviting "high quality work… that shows a recognizability of people, places, and events or an essence of life in this [Austin] area." Because anyone could submit photographs, the points of view were excitingly varied. A wonderful exhibit of 114 photographs was created which includes portraits, photographs of the buildings, springs, and homes of Austin, a "Wedding at Diny's — 1983." and much more. All of the photographs chosen for exhibit have now become part of the permanent Photography Collection of the AHC and. the curators hope, "will give the same interest, appreciation, and delight to subsequent viewers" as the Collection provides today.
An exciting part of researching this article was my introduction to the Houston Metropolitan Research Center, a part of our own public library. The HMRC was established in 1974 as an urban research center to house documentation of Houston and Harris County. Now, over 1,500,000 images are stored in its photography collection. There is an altitude al the HMRC that encourages looking, learning, and the asking of questions.
My tour of the facilities began in the office of Tom Kreneck, Assistant Archivist, whose enthusiasm is both delightful and contagious. Within five minutes I found myself looking at a group of portraits from the sixties, while discussing the importance of grouping, preserving, and viewing photographs as records.
Although the primary local photographers and newspapers represented date from the 20th century, additional images date back to the mid-!9th century. The 20th century is represented by the works of Frank Schlueter and Joseph Litterst and by photographs and negatives from The Houston Post since the 1950s. The Houston Chronicle since the 1960s, and the now-defunct Houston Press from 1904 to the 1960s.
The HMRC is actively involved in locating materials that document Houston and Harris County, and it will take anything given, including camera equipment. The policy of accepting "anything given" has helped to create an interesting collection, which archivally stores entire groups of family photographs. If a family donates Us photographs, each family member could possess a copy of the group for the price of the prints, while the originals would be stored safely and always available for viewing. This is a fantastic idea, especially when you think of all the family photographs that have been destroyed by improper care or spread throughout the country in the hands of different relatives. All of the cataloged photographs in the Houston Metropolitan Research Center are listed in the card catalog with a brief description and with cross-references by photographer's name, subject, and date. In addition to the card catalog, an exceptional finding aid has been created, which consists of photocopies of actual photographs in the collection. This finding aid is the best solution I have found to the problem of determining what you really want to see in a closed-stack collection. The photocopied images are particularly helpful to visually oriented people, such as photographers, and they also prevent unnecessary handling of fragile photographic materials. The cataloged photographs in the Houston Metropolitan Research Center arc available Monday through Saturday, from 9am to 6pm, with no appointments necessary. Copy prints are available and inexpensive; RC prints made by a local photographic lab cost about $5 each.
Even if money is no object, this is a terrific way to begin a collection of interesting and exciting photographs from the Houston area.